Just in case you’re wondering whether a Leica is a good beginner’s camera, I’m here to advise. And the answer is — heck no!
I can honestly say that probably in 95% of the time, a Leica wouldn’t be the best choice for a novice film shooter. I’ve been into them only since last year, so I can remember still quite vividly my thoughts and feelings after finally getting my own Leica. Oh, and just to be clear, we are of course talking about the Leica M rangefinders (not those stupid R-mount SLR’s, that nobody cares about) and especially the classic film shooting ones.
I got interested in Leicas after realising that I kinda enjoyed the idea of a rangefinder. I had few Canonets and Yashicas prior to that, but I really wanted something that of a better quality. I have been a fan of the Olympys OM-1 for a long time and I was expecting the same level of build quality and engineering from a rangefinder too. I agree that Canonets are fun, but they aren’t anything that I’d trust my life with… if that expression makes any sense. Besides, I’m really fascinated by the historical significance of the Leica rangefinder. I felt that there really weren’t any other options. No amount of Voigtländer Bessas could not substitute owning a real Leica. And as a designer myself, I really appreciate adore the design. There simply aren’t any substitute for a Leica.
The big day finally came and I got my first Leica. It didn’t feel familiar right off the bat. It seemed simple for sure and I even had experience in other rangefinders, but it just felt very different compared to any other camera. You know the feeling when you meet a new person and realise you have a lot of work ahead of you getting to know her/him. It’s hard to explain, but my initial thought was: “Ok, so you’re the Leica… right, now I’ll have to get to know you.” It was a surprising feeling because I’ve used my share of film cameras and didn’t expect such a simple camera to feel so alien. If I’d buy a new vintage Canon, I’d probably be like “Oh, another Canon” but the first Leica experience is more like Bilbo handing you a chainmail and starting the sentence with “This is no ordinary chainmail…” and then explaining that it has been made by magical hobgoblins. Very special moment.
Leicas are expensive as heck and more often than not, ‘over-priced’ is an understatement. The amount of money doesn’t certainly deliver you more features or an easier camera. Leica certainly doesn’t make anyone a better photographer in any way. If anything, it will make you suck even more, because it is actually a very demanding camera that has a distinct learning curve.
Leicas are often criticised of being rich man’s toys and that reputation is totally understandable, because too many people who have more money than sense, buy them for superficial reasons — not because they deserve them, so to speak. I bet there are plenty of so called Leica shooters who are extremely frustrated with their Leica(s), because they don’t understand them and because the camera don’t meet their expectations after spending a large amount of money. Less is more and you’re not paying for the amount of handy features. It is not a camera for everyone. Just look at Thorsten von Overgaard — does he really look like a normal guy to you?
I think a Leica would be just as ridiculous beginners camera as a vintage Porsche 911 would be for someone who just got their driver’s license. In a way, I’ve always felt that Leica is the Porsche 911 of cameras. On the other hand, they’re just cameras, but they’re still highly desirable, somewhat rare, well engineered and built, mechanical, reliable, tactile, beautiful but still a slight oddball, that kinda requires a certain kind of person to own, understand and operate one. Ok, I don’t know anything about Porsches and as I’m writing this, I’m not even too sure whether I’m spelling it correctly. But that’s none the less my mental image of them, based on the reputation, and I think it makes a somewhat good analogue to help me explain this.
There’s of course nothing wrong if a Leica happens to just fall on a beginner’s lap, but typically they are relatively hard to find and you’ll have to spend a lot of cash to get one. So much in fact that I feel the purchase has to be rationalised and justified pretty well. It isn’t like buying a milk carton.
One of the most delightful things about film photography, in general, is how cheap it is to get into. You don’t need much money to get an awesome, fully working Canon AE-1. You can get one for free, if your uncle can find his copy from the back of his cupboard. If you buy one second hand, you looking to spend no more than about 100 euros or dollars, including a lens. Leicas are not tens or hundreds of whatever currency. They are thousands! They are ridiculously expensive compared to what a typical second hand Canon, Nikon or Olympus (etc.) would cost. And to some extent, depending on how you look at it, you’ll get a better camera if you get a Canon AE-1 or something similar. As a beginner, you’ll probably enjoy the actual photography much more with a camera like that. Other manufacturers have been making awesome cameras for decades too.
I started with old Canons. My first camera was a Canon T-70 that used as a teenager in circa 1998—2002. I then went ahead and upgraded to a Canon AE-1 in about 2006. During those days however, the world had already turned digital and I didn’t shoot much film, or anything else serious for that matter, between 2003—2016. When I returned to film photography, it was with the same AE-1. It will always have a special place in my heart no matter how much so called “better” cameras I’ll have. In a way my AE-1 has more special significance for me than any other camera, just because it was such a great camera to start off with.
After my long film hiatus, I felt like I was a newbie once again and I was extremely lucky to go though it with my Canon AE-1. I can’t even imagine just how lost I would have been with a Leica or just how stupid I would have felt if I’d bought one right a way (assuming that I even would’ve had the money for one). As time went on, I slowly worked my way towards becoming a Leica guy, but it was a process — not a quick decision. In between, I went through a lot of cameras, a butt load of film and a lot of thinking and planning. Now that I’m a bit older and have some actual experience in traditional photography, I feel very good and justified about finally owning a Leica. The time would have not been right for it ten years ago because I simply wasn’t mature enough for one.